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First Steps
By Lango Deen
Jul 30, 2014, 13:35

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Pablo Vegas, President and Chief Operating Officer, AEP Ohio

If businesses are built one customer at a time, then so are careers—one job (or internship) at a time. That approach helped Pablo A. Vegas become one of the many success stories for internships and cooperative education. Over 5 undergraduate years in the University of Michigan (UM) College of Engineering, he did internships at an automaker, a high-tech company, an aviation firm, and a fire equipment maker.

Currently, UM makes over 700 co-ops and internships available to thousands of students at more than 200 employer sites across America.

"Internships are not just a three-month, four-month stop onto the next real job, but rather a significant building block that can be utilized down the road with people you meet and experiences you'll have," said Vegas, who was appointed president and chief operating officer for American Electric Power (AEP) Ohio in 2012. Vegas keeps the lights on for 1.5 million customers in Ohio—with responsibility for distribution operations, safety and a range of customer and regulatory relationships.

As an entering mechanical engineering freshman, Vegas signed up for the Engineering Cooperative Education Program. By the end of his sophomore year, he had worked with a co-op coordinator in the school to assess his interests. According to UM's website, the coordinator, who is aware of the needs and preferences of employers, refers students to a co-op employer who matches interests. Through a personal interview, usually held at the company, students and the employer make decisions about a job offer and acceptance of an offer.

Vegas began his first co-op under the supervision of practicing engineers at a glass plant in Dearborn, Michigan. He spent a semester doing quality testing. Vega’s second placement took him more than 700 miles south to North Carolina, testing communications equipment. He did so well, the company asked him back. Next was a position at Scott Aviation, in Lancaster, New York, which made respiratory products and systems for the aerospace industry. Vegas did inventory management of air packs used by firemen and in commercial aviation oxygen systems. In his senior year, he filled a slot at a firetruck company in West Virginia.

"Both of those were in consulting teams doing similar logistical improvement projects," he explained. "It was in those two that I grew to love the travel and lifestyle of consulting, and the dynamic nature of the kind of work the consultants were doing."

Vegas also learned, over the span of his five internships, just what he wanted to do and what he didn't want. He also found that he was more attracted to technology/inventory management and business consulting than core, traditional engineering focused on quality testing. He learned, too, the type of career opportunities he was interested in pursuing after graduation.

"One of the co-op assignments was with a firm in Cleveland that assigned me to a project run with support from one of the big consulting firms, Andersen Consulting (now known as Accenture). Over the course of two separate co-op assignments, I worked with this firm and their consulting teams on different business projects that combined IT system and business process changes. The dynamic nature of this work, the travel, and the challenge of applying technology to help solve business problems was fascinating to me and it led to my decision to work in the consulting industry when I graduated.”

As a new Andersen Consulting hire, and over the course of two years, Vegas did consulting for MCI, one of the largest long-distance phone companies at the time. He worked on billing systems development and computer programming. One of his most memorable projects was in the wireless division of MCI.

“This was back in the late ‘90s when cellphones were starting to take on and marketing of these cellphone companies was getting creative. They’d give you, say, the first minute free on a phone call; free minutes if you called at a certain time of day, lower costs within your local area than if you were roaming.”

Vegas remembers working on coding and development of billing systems for all those capabilities at MCI Wireless.

"I turned down higher-paying job offers to work in a location I felt I would be happier living in. At that time I didn’t have a family of my own yet, and I valued quality of life over a bigger paycheck. Later in my career, after having a family, my priorities changed and I made a significant career decision to leave consulting and move into the utility industry in order to limit the amount of travel I was doing that was taking me away from my family every week. Spending more time with my wife and children was an important priority and AEP offered me an opportunity where I could do that."

Since joining AEP in 2005, Vegas has held leadership positions in operations, information technology and finance. Previously he was vice president and chief information officer for American Electric Power, responsible for development and support of AEP's software applications and operation of AEP's information technology infrastructure. From 2008 to 2010, he was president and chief operating officer for AEP Texas, overseeing distribution operations serving nearly one million electricity consumers in south and west Texas as well as the operating unit’s safety, customer services, marketing, communications, community affairs, governmental affairs, and regulatory functions.

Prior , Vegas served as director of strategic planning, working cross functionally to formulate AEP’s short- and long-term strategic plans. Before joining AEP, Vegas held senior leadership positions with IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Andersen Consulting. In his last position with IBM, as associate partnercommunications sector, Vegas had responsibility for delivering process and technology solutions within the energy sector.

As a leader in the electric industry, Vegas said he needs to make sure that his organization is positioned to flex and change as the electric economy changes.

"Integrating renewable and distributed energy sources, reliability expectations in the face of extreme weather events, and an impending shift in electric generation fuels is going to drive dramatic change in our company and industry. So, I need to focus on developing change leadership skills across all disciplines at AEP. This includes a focus on the culture of our organization, the agility of our organization to adapt to change, and clarity of vision and strategy throughout the organization.”

Asked about his leadership style, he said two books have had a significant impact on the way he thinks about leadership and management. The first is “Winning” by Jack Welch.

"That book helped me understand the importance of communicating clearly regarding business strategies and how critical human resource management is in the role of a leader. The second is “Pleased but Not Satisfied” by David Sokol. This book reminds us to always be critical in how we look at our business and that conservative and disciplined management practices may not be flashy, but will deliver high performance results consistently."

Vegas adds 5 rules of his own:

• Always know what the big rocks are in your life and at work.

“There was an activity at a church camp I attended that had us fill a jar with a series of small, medium and large rocks, with the goal being to fit as many as possible in the jar. Then the rocks were equated to items of importance in our life (the large rocks being the most important) and the jar was the amount of time we had in our life. The activity shows that if you don’t put the large rocks in first, they will not fit after you put in the small ones. So if you fill your day with less important activities, you will miss out on the most important things in your life.”

• Never delegate accountability.

“This does not mean do not delegate, but focus on accountability and ownership. Regardless of whether you are a manager or individual contributor, take ownership in your work and see it through to completion.”

• Lead by example–always be willing to do yourself what you ask of others.

• Surround yourself with people that are better than you and/or want your job.

“A network of ambitious and successful people can be one of your most valuable work assets. And remember, you can’t go anywhere in your career if you’re irreplaceable. Help grow and develop people and you will also help your career development as well.”

• Say thank you often, publicly and genuinely.

“Gratitude and appreciation are at the top of the mood elevator and when our thinking and attitude is in an appreciative state, we are at our best.”

Vegas currently serves as the chairman on the Board of Trustees for the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. He is a director on the boards of the United Way of Central Ohio, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the economic development organization for central Ohio – Columbus 2020. He also serves on the advisory boards for the Ohio State University College of Engineering and the Ohio University Voinovich School of Leadership. Vegas attended the AEP Strategic Leadership program at The Ohio State University and graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering.

Vegas has three pieces of advice for students in a co-op or internship

1. Take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the organization beyond just the area that you are assigned.
2. Ask a lot of questions. People do not expect you to know everything, you are there to learn.
3. It is equally important to learn what you do NOT want to do with your career as it is to learn what you DO want to do in your career.
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